My work as a consumer protection attorney requires me to travel a lot, which allows me to see the many beautiful places and the many pleasant faces across Montana. I’ve found that there are very few similarities among the cities and towns and our friends, neighbors and strangers within the 630-miles-wide and 255-miles-tall borders of Montana. Each is unique and special. Yet, there is one universally true thing that all Montanans share: Our broadband access to the internet is horrible. Specifically, we rank dead last — 50th in the nation — for broadband internet access.
I’ve heard the joke, “Hey, the Internet is going to be big someday. Somebody should let Montana know.” It’d be funny if it weren’t so true. Even in some of our largest communities, the investment in broadband infrastructure is either non-existent or so spotty that it is not even worth trying to make a call or send an email.
Don’t get me wrong. Like most Montanans, my family and I enjoy getting off the grid and I am often glad when hiking that I can’t get a phone call or email. Still, when we need to be connected, every one of our communities and tribal nations should have access to high-quality, universal broadband.
As a nation and a state, we spend untold millions on building and maintaining our highways, roads and bridges. Now, the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration are considering crafting legislation to invest in our national infrastructure as we try to dig out of the recession associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, an important and worthy effort. In doing so, they should include funding for a national build-out of broadband infrastructure to provide high-speed internet access to all Americans, not excluding those of us in rural communities.
There are a number of reasons that this is important to Montana and our nation.
First, universal access to broadband is a powerful economic development strategy that makes all of our communities more competitive in the 21st century economy. Our ability to grow existing Montana businesses and to create new companies that provide high-paying jobs is largely dependent upon our ability to remain connected through quick and reliable internet access.
Second, as we recover and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana and other rural states must be able to adjust to a growing work-from-home business environment, and the growing number of job opportunities associated with this trend. No Montanan should be denied a good-paying job because they do not have access to broadband. Yet that is happening today, every day.
Third, Montana farmers and ranchers increasingly require access to a broadband internet connection, as they deploy new, innovative technology and data collection tools. We need universal broadband to support our friends in these industries upon whom we rely for affordable food and economic prosperity.
I applaud the efforts of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and the rest of our congressional delegation to bring universal access to high-quality, affordable broadband to all of Montana, not just the cities. In Montana, many thousands of us live and work in frontier communities. There is no better place for the frontiers of technology, including universal broadband, to make a positive difference in people’s lives, businesses, farms and ranches.
John Heenan is a consumer protection attorney in Billings and a former Democratic candidate for Congress.
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